Locally grown: Fertilizing small-scale farming

Slow Money CVA co-founder Michael Reilly says the organization gives supporters a way to invest in the local food movement. Photo: Eze Amos Slow Money CVA co-founder Michael Reilly says the organization gives supporters a way to invest in the local food movement. Photo: Eze Amos

Most small farmers could use a little green. That’s the idea behind Slow Money Central Virginia, a micro-finance nonprofit that helps local small farmers grow.

The venture is affiliated with the Slow Money Institute based in Boulder, Colorado. Named in tribute to the slow food movement, the Institute provides what it calls “nurture capital” to help build sustainable local-food economies.

Slow Money CVA co-founders Hunter Hopcroft and Michael Reilly met through the local food advocacy community. After a few years in finance, Hopcroft  launched a specialty grocery store in Richmond; he’s now special projects manager at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market there and a partner in JM Stock, an organic whole-animal butchery in Charlottesville. C’ville resident Reilly had worked in banking/finance and corporate broadcasting, but always had an interest in food sustainability. In May 2018, they launched Slow Food CVA.

“Government agricultural support and our financial system exclude small-scale farmers,” says Reilly. “They don’t get access to [the support] other kinds of small-scale businesses do.” The niche Slow Money CVA serves is organic producers that could grow with a relatively small infusion of capital. Its initial offering: S.O.I.L. loans (for Slow Opportunities for Investing Locally) in the $5-8,000 range for 3-5 years at 0 percent interest.

Yes, 0 percent – that’s where the Slow Money model is different. “Our supporters are both investors and philanthropists,” says Reilly. “With their charitable contributions, they are investing in the future of the local community. If you’re really interested in supporting the local food movement, now you can actually provide funding for local producers.”

One of their first beneficiaries is nearby Free Union Grass Farm, which produces pastured proteins (beef, pork, and poultry). Partners Erica Hellen and Joel Slezak knew Reilly from his work in food advocacy; when they had the chance to make some farm improvements, Reilly saw a S.O.I.L. opportunity.

Most of the loan went to buying equipment and animals from a nearby farm that was closing. “We could have put the expenses on our line of credit,” Hellen says, “but no interest was attractive—otherwise we might have put off the purchase.” Now the farm has additional fencing equipment, a cattle head gate, and rollout nesting boxes (which means cleaner, fresher eggs, less breakage, and far fewer hours spent collecting and washing them).

Slow Money CVA has held meet-and-greets to explain the concept and let local farmers talk about their challenges. Long-range plans? An offering called Peer-to-Peer Lending, where donors can deal directly with farmers and work out affordable loans for minimal interest (2-4 percent)—or maybe free organic farm products?

Farm facts: Albemarle County and Virginia

Agriculture is the largest private industry in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, with a total economic impact of $70 billion annually. Meanwhile, “[less] than 16 cents of every consumer dollar spent on food actually goes to the farmer,” per the VDACS. (Data is from 2017.)

Virginia overview

Total number of farms in Virginia: 43,225

Average Virginia farm size in acres: 180

Total land in farms in Virginia in acres: 7.79 million (equal to 31 percent
of Virginia’s total land area of 25.3 million acres)

Market value of Virginia agricultural products sold: $3.96 billion

Albemarle County overview

Total number of farms in Albemarle County: 913

Average Albemarle County farm size in acres: 200

Total land in farms in Albemarle County in acres: 182,781 (equal to 39.6 percent of the total acreage in the county)

Market value of Albemarle County agricultural products sold: $29.6 million

Sources: Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (vdacs.virginia.gov/pdf/agfacts.pdf) and United States Department of Agriculture (www.nass.usda.gov)